A teacher in New Jersey who assigned her third-grade class to write "get well" letters to a sick inmate convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer was suspended yesterday. Orange School Superintendent Ronald Lee said in a statement that school administrators "vehemently deny" any knowledge of Marylin Zuniga's assignment. Preliminary inquiries found that Zuniga did not seek approval from administrators or notify parents, Lee said. The letters were delivered to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther serving life in prison for the 1981 murder of white Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner. He was hospitalized last month because of complications from diabetes.
Abu-Jamal's conviction was upheld through years of appeals, but he has gained international support for his claim that he is the victim of a racist justice system. The police union condemned the teacher's actions, but a supporter and history professor at Baruch College, Johanna Fernandez, showed Abu-Jamal the letters while she visited him Monday. "I think he was touched," she said. "Quite frankly, I'm more concerned about 8-year-olds witnessing a police officer kill an innocent man in South Carolina than I am about a teacher sending letters her children wrote to one of the most important black public intellectuals of our time, who happens to be very ill." Zuniga will remain suspended with pay until the investigation is completed, the superintendent said.